School board delays decision on bus transportation service
The DeSoto School Board delayed its decision on which school bus company to use next year after a recommendation by the district transportation director was met with criticism by many of the district's school bus drivers.
About 25 bus drivers attended the school board meeting Monday night to urge board members to retain the services of Crabtree-Harmon, the school district's current transportation provider.
Jack Deyoe, district transportation director, recommended the board end the contract with Crabtree-Harmon of Belton, Mo. after the current school year and award next year's contract to Laidlaw Transit, of Lawrence.
Deyoe said the district's decision to begin charging students living within 2.5 miles of school to ride the bus prompted his recommendation of Laidlaw over Crabtree-Harmon.
Although bids from the two companies were similar on most other fronts, Deyoe said, only Laidlaw had experience with school districts that charge students to ride the bus. Because board members previously decided the transportation provider should handle the issue of bus fees, Deyoe said, he believed Laidlaw was the best choice.
"The Laidlaw proposal included experience of a number of years with paid ridership with districts like Olathe and Blue Valley," he said. "Crabtree has dealt primarily with smaller districts that do not charge."
Deyoe suggested the board allow the bus drivers in attendance to speak on the matter.
Shirley Faircloth said she had driven for the district and for Crabtree-Harmon since 1991. She urged the board to give her employer an opportunity to prove it could handle the switch to a paid system.
"As the district has grown, we've had many firsts and paid ridership is just another one. I think you should give Crabtree-Harmon a chance," she said. "They've always been good to their employees. They've worked with us and helped us out when we needed it. We're kind of like one big family."
Job security was a concern of bus driver Claudia Searcy who also spoke on behalf of Crabtree-Harmon.
"Most likely, if you let Crabtree-Harmon go, you're letting a lot of us drivers go," she said. "If it's not broken don't fix it. It's true they haven't dealt with paid ridership before, but Laidlaw hadn't either when they started."
Jan Carpenter said she has driven for the district for five years and has learned occasional conflict with parents of her passengers is inevitable. Carpenter said the managers of Crabtree-Harmon have always backed their employees in those situations, something she did not believe was true of Laidlaw. Carpenter worked for Laidlaw in the Blue Valley School District prior to coming to DeSoto, she said.
"I saw a big difference between the two companies. If we have a problem here, management from Belton comes up and backs us. That didn't happen with Laidlaw," she said. "I also dealt with paid ridership in Blue Valley. It's a fairly easy adjustment. It's not the big monster everyone thinks it is."
Finally, Scott Bruegge of Crabtree-Harmon spoke on his company's behalf. Bruegge said Crabtree-Harmon's parent company had experience with charging fees, and would help the local company through the transition.
"I think we're at an advantage, being the current provider, to get an early start on things like routing," he said. "And we do have some guidance with paid ridership. I'm a hands-on kind of guy. I like to get in there and get the job done."
Dennis Newton, Laidlaw district manager, said his company would do everything it could to retain the district's current drivers. Laidlaw provides many of the same services to their drivers that Crabtree-Harmon does, he added, including a ride-along program that allows employees to take their children on the school bus with them.
"I've been on both sides of contract changes and we have drivers, I'm sure, who would make the same comments about us," he said. "I know it's a difficult thing and can be a very traumatic situation for drivers. But if you give us a chance, I think you would like working with us."
Board member Bill Waye wanted to know if the only difference between the two companies was experience with charging riders.
"The only thing as far as service is concerned that is not equal is experience. Crabtree has been slow coming into technology," Deyoe said. "With things like electronic mapping of the routes, Laidlaw is more advanced. This was a difficult decision for us because Crabtree has worked very hard."
Board member Curtis Allenbrand wanted reassurance from the Laidlaw representatives that the district's current drivers would be offered jobs if they passed the company's background checks. Newton again assured Allenbrand they would.
"Are the hourly rates between the two companies comparable?" Allenbrand asked.
Newton's affirmative response prompted protests from the audience. Many of the drivers told Newton they were making close to $90 a day driving for Crabtree-Harmon, as opposed to a starting salary of $9.60 an hour at Laidlaw.
Because the pay scales of the two companies were structured differently, board members asked the representatives of both companies to submit an average salary of their drivers before the next board meeting.
They also asked for a breakdown of what each company could provide the district in relation to the paid rider policy. Board member Jim Thomas asked Laidlaw representatives to submit a report on how their company deals with driver disputes.
"That seems to be an important issue to a lot of the people here," he said.
Representatives of both companies said they would submit the information before the board's April 5 meeting.